Saturday, July 11, 2009

I Am an Expert

"10,000 hours is a common touchstone for how long it takes to become an expert." Richard Sennett, The Craftsman.

The 10,000 hour rule - The amount of time spent practicing the thing which one becomes known for. Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers; the Story of Success.

Since the average hourly work year is 2,000 hours, one could expect to be an expert in five years. I think of myself after five years as a woodworker and I don't think I had the slightest allusion to being an expert. I was still muddling my way through trying to make a living at something I was growing to love more each week. I have been a professional worker in wood of one form or another since 1975. If I added up all the hours in 34 to 35 years of woodworking, I could easily be six going on seven kinds of an expert!

But I am an expert. That does not mean I am the best at what I do or the knowledge that I have is superior in any way. All it means is that I have expertise. I have clocked a certain amount of time doing what I do to be considered having expertise at doing it. I am now at a point that I looked forward to when I began woodworking. I do not have to think about each choice, each action before I do it. I have a certain amount of acquired knowledge that allows me to think more about the direction I wish to go rather then how to get there. My expertise may not be of interest to everyone. But for those who do have interest it is there for their consideration. As a teacher (Oregon College of Art and Craft and Catlin Gabel School, both in Portland, Oregon) I obligate myself to consider the most effective ways to share my expertise and experience. What the people, the students who care to listen, to watch, to discuss with me do with what they find out is up to them.

Eric Annan Kwei is an expert. Though only 25 years old he has been working in his grandfather's (Kane Kwei) woodworking shop, building coffins on and off since he was 8 years old. He has been running the business for the last four years, so he is almost an expert at that, too. He is a strong master and a good friend at the same time, a rare combination. He is quick with a joke or a funny story and metes out discipline when necessary. He realizes what he has been given is an incredible gift and that it is also a huge responsibility. When he demonstrates something to me it is with a kind word and a bit of patience, but with a directness and firmness of expectation, an expectation that I take what he has shown me and make it mine.

As a student, I am trying to listen intently with my eyes, my hands, and my mind while I am here. This is my only way to absorb the thinking, the choice making, the body/tool/material connection that makes a Ga coffin maker. Whether I will become a competent coffin maker or not will be judged later when I begin to make some the common choices unconsciously that will allow me to make other, more creative choices consciously. The techniques will become second nature giving my brain the cognitive space and freedom to create new form or modify old.

When I am in my role as a teacher, I am aware that my students are listening with what they have, and at times only what they are allowing themselves to listen with. Whether from attention or wiring, some things just don't get through. So, I attempt to inform in many ways: through demonstration (usually successful), explanation (probably the least affective), and sometimes with my hands on their hands helping them get the feeling (usually affective after a demonstration wasn't quite enough). Sometimes using a drawing helps, either the student's drawing or mine or a combination of both. But what works most of all is the student's willingness to take what they understand and risk it. Their attempt to do what they saw and heard by using the tools in the manner that they think will affect the material in the desired way is a leap of faith. This willingness to try can reap success, but there is a high risk of failure. Failure is uncomfortable for a person who likes to feel competent in his or her world, but it happens to all makers, including teachers and experts. Fumbling through failure can give as much or more information as success. It just so happens most learning situations are public and there are many levels of competency in a room of learners. So the pain of failure is mixed with the risk of public ridicule and…empathy. Luckily, most students are in the situation with others going through the same experience.

Here there are seven or eight apprentices. Everyone is at a different level. Some are more competent then others. Some (me) need more coaching and attention. I feel awkward at times when I repeat an operation several times and still don't get it. But I feel empathy from the other apprentices, because I am trying and I continue to work. Sometimes there is a little impatience if I am slowing up a process. But many times someone steps in to help and I can see how it is done correctly. What I have to suppress is the little person inside who wants to yell, "But I know how to do it, this way!" This happens rarely because the techniques are different, the tools are different, and the thinking and problem solving are different.

Learning a process of making, learning to diagnose a problem within a process, either design or mechanical, is about learning the rules and usually the rules are assumed and what is worse ordinarily the rules cannot be verbalized easily or at all. What are the rules for riding a bike? Well, keep your balance while moving in the direction you wish to go, lean into a turn, lean back to upright when going straight and when you get to your destination, slowly apply the brakes with plenty of room to stop so that you can put your foot down as your speed slows causing you to loose your balance again. That sounds more like a description then a set of rules. But can you be more precise? What is the rule for keeping your balance? How fast do you have to move before the rule for keeping your balance kicks in? What is the rule for how much you lean into a curve? What does leaning into a curve mean? And finally how slow can you move before you eventually loose the aforementioned balance and have to stabilize yourself and the bike with your foot? The precise wording of the rules you need to be successful might very well be impossible, but you certainly know when the rules start to happen for you! It is the same thing about learning the effective way of manipulating material with tools. The action can be demonstrated and explained. But only you know when the rule works and when it doesn't. And you have to remember what you did (how you moved) just prior, during, and typically afterward, as well. The motion prior gets the tool ready and in position, the motion during maintains the position of interaction with the material, and then follow through makes sure your body energy and motion do not degrade to the point that the motion stops short or becomes inefficient at the end.

One can give detailed physical rules about proper angles and speed and pressure and force but it isn't going to mean a lot to someone who has never used a hand plane or a saw or chisel before (even for experienced tool users it could only be of curious interest without much value for tool use). The best a teacher can do after "riding the bike" around the area for a bit, giving helpful hints is to point you in the right direction, give you a gentle push, and have you fail or stumble a bit as you gain your "balance" with the tool/material interaction. And you repeat the process over and over until your body and brain start to understand what all the demonstrating and verbiage was about and assimilates the rules for you, so that you can call on them when next you dare to chance fate and zoom off again. And the best is when you become an expert and you forget to think about the rules. Your self-consciousness is gone and you can push off to enjoy the scenery, fresh air, forget about how to do it and just make it happen in new and expanding ways.

As a student I have to keep aware that information will be coming at me in many forms, from direct instruction to the casual glance at another apprentice's work, from having instant "aha" moments of immediate success to re-doing the same operation over and over until I finally "get it". In fact I am finding from day to day I have to redo/relearn some operations because the "rules" are not there in the background yet. According to Peter Dormer in his book, The Art of the Maker: Skill and Its Meaning in Craft and Design, an expert is one who must forget the rules in order to become one. According to Dormer, to have expertise, rules directing the expert's actions and diagnostic choices must become second nature and unconscious. If one has to think of each rule before acting nothing would be done in a timely manner and hardly with competence and speed. The expert has the freedom to formulate all kinds of creative choices about what to make without continually thinking about how to make it.

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